Monthly Archives: October 2007

Dan in Real Life (2007)

What is it about advice columnists that make filmmakers want to turn their lives upside down? I suppose there’s some karmic twist seeing someone who instructs others fall on their face when it comes to living their own life. I can readily think of several movies, mostly in the romantic comedy and sentimental weepie genre, that all involve an advice columnist who has their life torn asunder by fate. I suppose the extra dose of irony seems less cruel when dished out to someone who, supposedly, has all the answers. Dan in Real Life is an observant and enjoyable movie that centers on the stumbles and joys of the life of cinema’s favorite whipping boy.

Dan (Steve Carell) is an advice columnist raising three daughters on his own. His wife died years ago from an undisclosed illness and ever since he has been trying his darndest to be the best, if not slightly overprotective, dad. His oldest (Alison Pill) is eager for the car keys, his middle daughter (Brittany Robertson) is defiantly insistent upon her undying love for a boy, and his youngest (Marlene Lawston) is the kind of tyke that provides sage wisdom in time of need, usually at the very end of the movie. The lot of them head out to the family home along the Rhode Island coast to spend the week with the extended brood. Dan sleeps in the laundry room, is hated by his spiteful daughters, and forced into a blind date thanks to his concerned parents (John Mahoney, Dianne Wiest).

While Dan is out trying to decompress he stumbled across Marie (Juliette Binoche) in a bookstore. They spend hours talking, well Dan does, and suddenly the rain cloud over his head seems destined to fade. He stammers to tell his family the good news when he discovers that his brother, Mitch (Dane Cook), has brought his new girlfriend to meet the folks and it’s, surprise, Marie. Dan respects his brother and tries to control his feelings of desire but still cannot help but flirt and pine for Marie, who is all too aware of the under the radar advancements.

I’m actually somewhat amazed at how well Dan in Real Life plays out in real life. The idea of a big family get-together as a source of comedy has been done to death, and this clan exists in an exaggerated world popularized by movies where families have spirited games of charades, robust sing-a-longs, and then perform a talent show complete with decorative furnishing. The family’s emphasis on togetherness plays out in expected wacky scenarios that would be regularly seen on TV sitcoms, but it is refreshing that an entire film based around an annual family reunion instills no fraternal bickering or bitterness. That’s got to be something new, and again, potentially a pure product of the cinema. Dan in Real Life has familiar staples and walks some dangerously sappy territory but the film manages to surprise and amuse because it all comes back to being character-centered. There’s a great scene where Dan is hiding in a shower and Marie is forced, in order to maintain the rouse, to step naked into the shower with him. Dan is thrown into some contrived situations, like the shower scene, but it is his wounded, deferential sensibilities that save him and also save the film from movie-of-the-week trappings.

Director/co-writer Peter Hedges (Pieces of April) knows how much anguish Dan can suffer before pulling back, and it gets to a point where Dan starts to seem like a comic Job (that might be redundant). Of course, like most sitcoms, lessons will be learned and wisdom will be doled out thanks to full and honest communication, and Dan in Real Life is no different in that regard. There’s a level of believability to the film that helps ground it even during the familiar sitcom moments, like the late rush to testify one’s feelings of true love.

Carell isn’t a stranger to drama or comedy with some painful underpinnings to it, just look at his work in Little Miss Sunshine or the brilliant awkwardness of TV’s The Office. He’s very effective at communicating the exhausting exasperation of raising a trio of feisty females. There are some tender moments and Carell plays them well. He just has a physically natural look of sad befuddlement with his droopy yet piercing eyes and those bushy brows, so he knowingly underplays broad expressions and gestures and this works exceedingly well with the film’s un-sensational tone. When Dan does unleash the wilder, sillier side it’s usually a culmination of his pent up feelings; being denied happiness that appears within reach. He is a quietly becoming unwound as he tries to squash the feelings he doesn’t want to extinguish.

Binoche is a famous French actress who has an Oscar to boot, but she is simply radiant in this film and makes her character a prize worth perusing. She has an adorable sense of displacement and she and Carell exhibit a nice chemistry. Even in the tight timeframe, both the plot (3 days) and the film’s running length (93 minutes), Binoche manages to make us believe that someone could fall in love with her so easily.

Dan in Real Life is laid back, affable, and a sweet homespun comedy that escapes the sitcom trappings it very easily could have fallen prey to. What makes Dan so winning, ultimately, is how quietly and unassuming it goes about telling a familiar story of a sad man taking his first steps toward happiness. The movie has a gentle nature to it and succeeds thanks to an effective Carell performance and a really great turn by Binoche. Dan in Real Life is a feel-good drama that seems primarily aimed at adults, at least those with a working knowledge of the terrors of teenagers. This isn’t anything new or groundbreaking but it is heartfelt, somewhat moving, and very easy to like. My advice: give this movie a chance and prepare to be surprised.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Fountain (2006)

After six years of anticipation, I cannot escape my crushing disappointment with writer/director Darren Aronofsky’s long-awaited follow-up to one of my favorite films, Requiem for a Dream. While the film manages to be visually resplendent, there is no emotional involvement at all because of how abbreviated the story is. This thing barely covers 90 scant minutes and, this may be the first time I’ve ever said this, but The Fountain needed to be an hour longer, minimum. The separate time frames bleed into each other and there’s a lot of repetition, but then we discover that the cutaways to the 16th century and the visions of the LSD-heavy future are simply side trips detailed in a book. The real meat of the story is on one man losing the love of his life to illness and how they come to grips with eventual loss; however, I can’t feel as much empathy when the movie fails to take any time to set up characters. Aronofsky keeps things interesting, and rather weird, but this romantic fable ends up being nothing more than a misguided folly thanks to a total lack of breathing room for the characters to live. This was probably my single biggest disappointment of all the 2006 movies.

Nate’s Grade: C

Wild Hogs (2007)

It’s hard to imagine that this lowbrow, homophobic, uninspired, painfully nostalgic film is the top grossing comedy of the year so far. I don’t really want to further elaborate on what this says about the general public. The boys (John Travolta, Tim Allen, Martin Lawrence, William H. Macy, a more random grouping of actors I challenge you to find) are all henpecked and unhappy with their dull, predictable, socially comfortable lives, so what’s a group of men facing midlife crises to do? Road trip. The idea of the freedom of the open road and the rebelliousness of touring the country on the back of a motorcycle seems quaint and naive at this point in life. What follows on their biker odyssey is a lot of lame slapstick and each actor trying to outdo the other in masculinity. A protracted third act standoff brings the film to a halt that it can never recuperate from. Wild Hogs isn’t a comedy disaster of sorts but it’s definitely got enough aimless misogyny and retroactive Boomer nostalgia to make you gag.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Music and Lyrics (2007)

As bland and flavorless as the 1980s pop pap it hopes to skewer. For die-hard fans of the romantic comedy genre, there may be some minor level of enjoyment, but for the rest of us (those without ovaries) Music and Lyrics is predictable to the end and Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore don’t elicit any semblance of chemistry. The songwriting is noticeably a cut above thanks to Fountain of Wayne’s bassist Adam Schlesinger writing them, but even the participation of one of my favorite bands can’t make Music and Lyrics worth seeing. The Duran Duran-esque music video that opens the film is a hoot and it all goes downhill from there, especially if you find it difficult to accept long durations of the cutesy baby act of Barrymore.

Nate’s Grade: C

Perfect Stranger (2007)

What starts as a pretty poor thriller goes absurdly over the top by the tired Hollywood convention of a forced twist ending, and this one isn’t just forced, no, it contradicts everything that happened before it for 100 minutes. The movie piles up red herring after red herring trying to keep the audience guessing, but I think this is because Perfect Stranger had no idea how to end and who would be deemed the killer. As a result, the hedging feels like a lousy board game of Clue until the awful, ludicrous, inconceivable twist ending. It’s the kind of ending that is supposed to somehow make sense because the filmmakers flashed short bursts of a childhood incident that lacked context and clarity. Perfect Stranger really has one of the worst twist endings of recent memory because it makes no sense and defies all logic. If the ending were right why would someone wait years upon years to plan a murder to hide something that seems inconsequential? Why does someone think their friend is a killer because their computer memory recalled that they visited a company website despite the fact that this person is a journalist and going undercover at this same company? And why, stupid Hollywood characters, do you recite how you’ve figured out their deeply convoluted plan to the murderer only to get murdered? Halle Berry gives a rather embarrassing performance; she’s all over the map and I question much of her character’s actions and anxiety, especially when seen ALONE, if the twist ending holds. Perfect Stranger is ridiculous junk that tries to outsmart an audience by confusing them and then openly negating their story thanks to a twist ending that is intended to blow minds but will simply leave people scratching their heads and pitying everyone involved in this disposable dreck. And no, this has nothing to do with Cousin Larry and Balki.

Nate’s Grade: D

The Black Dahlia (2006)

Hey, I got an idea. How about we make a Black Dahlia movie and hardly involve anything having to do with the notorious Black Dahlia murder? I’ve got an even better idea; let’s center the action around a love triangle involving cops who are, say it with me, too close to the case. And then we’ll have a wacked out rich family where the mother (Fiona Shaw, God bless her) gives a performance that isn’t three-sheets-to-the-wind drunk, she is staggering, cataclysmically, powerfully, off-the-wall drunk. Watching her sway and sneer and hiccup is like watching Daffy Duck in this Brian DePalma mess. The central actors feel too young for their parts (the best actor is Mia Kirshner, seen briefly in an audition reel as the soon to be eviscerated Elizabeth Short), and the ending is an insipid caper to an ongoing, unsolved murder mystery. The Black Dahlia is appallingly boring and yet also appallingly dimwitted, but it does occasionally look good thanks to the technical proficiency of its director. DePalma has had a very up and down career. Consider this one of his valleys.

Nate’s Grade: D

Epic Movie (2007)

I wish to raise a call to arms to all moviegoers who enjoy real comedy, and by real comedy I mean exactly the opposite of what you’ll find in the abysmal Epic Movie. This latest spoof-fest is depressing to watch because I think of all the good independent movies that could have been bankrolled instead of this garbage, but I also drop my head in sorrow for the fact that a generation of mostly adolescent boys will grow to maturity thinking THIS is comedy.

The movie essentially sets its aims on anything from the year 2006 and it becomes almost like a fawning scrapbook for that year that will be obsolete in a hurry. The story is framed around a group of orphans discovering a hidden portal in a wardrobe that takes them to the wonderful world of Gnaria. The White Bitch (Jennifer Coolidge, who is actually referred to as “Stiffler’s mom” in this) is looking to take total control and… oh God, it hurts me to even recycle the plot summary. Epic Movie is littered with the same slumming celebrity faces like Carmen Electra and Tony Cox. Only Darrell Hammond is slightly amusing in a fairly decent impersonation of a pointlessly used Captain Jack Sparrow.

Let me make this abundantly clear: Epic Movie and its recent ilk do not parody movies or cultural events, they parrot them. They simply recycle references and treat the references as the joke, so just seeing a group of guys dressed like the NASCAR team in Talladega Nights is supposed to be funny. Epic Movie is spawned by the same team that made Date Movie, but at least that unfunny piece of junk at least had some slight semblance of focus. What qualifies as an “epic” movie exactly? Is Borat an epic movie? Is The Da Vinci Code an epic movie? Is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory an epic movie? Is Click and epic movie? Is “epic” an overused term to begin with? Don’t even get me started on the uselessness of attempting to parody Snakes on a Plane especially with a PG-13 rating.

At least I laughed twice, yes twice, during Date Movie, but I never stopped groaning during every minute of this woeful mess. Most of the jokes fall under uninspired slapstick or the scatological. There’s a running gag where the daffy redhead keeps repeating the sassy black girl. No one makes reference to it and it just keeps happening, so I’m expecting some kind of payoff. Nope. It builds to nothing. This movie makes Date Movie look like Annie Hall. I hope those sadly misguided few that find chuckles from Epic Movie will eventually discover that jokes are funnier when there’s setup, when you play against expectation or convention, and that wit does indeed exist in this universe. I pray that these terrible, cannibalistic, aimless spoofs will fade away, or else we may all be left with the disgusting possibility that the future idea of a comedy will be a movie that simply makes references to Epic Movie.

If comedy is to survive these movies must be stopped. I’m not advocating a violent overthrow but I’m certainly not not advocating it.

Nate’s Grade: F

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